It’s a remarkable fusion of influences (he’d call them sources) that inform the work of Michael McClure. Certainly in the Pound/Williams/Olson tradition of 20th Century North American poetry, but also informed by Hua Yen Buddhism, 20th century physics and Alfred North Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” among myriad other energetic sources.
And like William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, he is in the late stage of his life as he embarks on a multi-decade project, as Williams and Olson did with Paterson and The Maximus Poems. Unlike those poets, his project is not an epic as much as a serial poem, in the vein of Robin Blaser’s “Image Nations” and Robert Duncan’s “Structure of Rime” and “Passages.” It is open, organic, because it derives, as Duncan pointed out, “from impulse, not plan.”
McClure’s (as yet) untitled serial poem appears, like Duncan’s, in different publications and unpublished texts. It includes 1995’s “Dolphin Skull,” 1999’s “Crisis Blossom/Graftings,”2004’s “Dear Being,” and 2006’s “Mysteriosos.” “Dolphin Skull” isa sixty-six page projective poem in two parts, the first part of which McClure suggests in the foreword was:
. . .written from the unconscious in the sense that Jackson Pollock’s ‘psychoanalytic drawings’ were from the unconscious – what I saw was simply there and was not planned in order or method except the systemless one that is the creative act.
As is the case with most of McClure’s work, there is little “framing” of content. It is not about the history of a place, American history as seen through the events of a town like Paterson or Gloucester, although there are references to historical events. This serial piece is a love poem, an environmental poem, erotic poem, memoir, anti-war poem and African travelogue. It was written shortly after a trip to Kenya and Tanzania and reports of, “Elephant skeletons / spread out like explosions / on / the / dry / yellow / grass / and gyrfalcons / squawking with anger / flying round their nest / in the cliff.” Gyrfalcons could be seen as a reference to a Duncan image, and through Duncan to H.D. who was a source for Duncan, and in whose poem “Helen in Egypt” this image occurs. It is not important whether McClure knew it at the time, or not, such is the way with writing in this manner, but the falcon represents, among other things, ascension through all planes, freedom and hope for all those in moral and spiritual bondage.
It was only four years later that he sought to re-immerse himself in many of the images first reported in “Dolphin Skull,” in 1999’s “Crisis Blossom” and specifically the “Graftings” section of that poem, as in “grafting eleven” when he takes most of four lines of a stanza from “Dolphin Skull” and transforms it into a more overt homage to the feminine:
“’MIND’ MEANS NOTHING BUT CONSCIOUSNESS – / a rock has it and a toadstool/ and a field of subparticles in a complex protein / as it loops, tying a knot.” And where in the original branch he’d move to “a mouth with a cock in it” this time he reports: “My mouth / with your nipple in it / is the rising of thought/ into apricots and wild honeysuckle, / as vines ‘hang in my face / on the trail….”
Five years later the urge for the poem resurfaces in the lines of the yet unpublished “Dear Being,” with its two epigraphs, the first of which is:
“ it is better to focus on the radical originality of a situation. The thought which flows from this has a chance of being itself more original. This is the opposite of repentance…”
And again McClure goes back to the fountainhead of all this inspiration, the moment (and state of consciousness) which delivered “Dolphin Skull,” as in the eighth stanza of the poem:
YOU ARE MY MEMORIES OF YOU
holding my hand
I am a flowering.
— As the withered roses are
back there in the 50’s
in the dusty cruet that was a bud vase.
(Petals crumbling and odors
spreading and falling apart.)
WITH A STARRY LOVE FOR HONESTY GROWING,
EVERYTHING IS ON TIME AS IT POURS INTO ME!
This notion is pure Whitehead, as is much McClure from about 1974 on, and perhaps his work in general. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” views reality not so much as made up of things as of actual occasions of experience, which is the case in McClure’s projective process. McClure’s actual occasion of composition is consciously imbued with the notion of interrelated and mutually-dependant parts informing the process in combination with an intense “prehension.” A prehension, in Whitehead’s philosophy, can be seen as a process of appropriation of an element or actual entity which changes the makeup of the subject. McClure’s selectivity as to what he prehends is part of what gives this serial poem its power, (energy in Olson’s language), from the aforementioned African images, to historical figures like Blake, Goethe, Kannon (Quan Yin), Thoreau, Artaud, Shelley, Rimbaud, Whitehead, Pollock, Swedenborg, Böhme, Da Vinci, Scriabin, Kerouac, as well as the majestic scenery of his adopted land, California, from boulders on the sea shore to the view of brown hills by moonlight while crickets sing, along with cats, lions, deer, osprey, blue jays, red-tailed hawks, eagles, sow bugs and images that define McClure’s personal universe, including turquoise, musk, white linen, violets, and all the glorious scents, like mackerel baking or soup with leaves and odors of Vietnamese basil.
And so those who are open to the field(s) of energy, those who are ready to prehend the deep field of consciousness that is this serial poem, are gifted here with this fifteen stanza excursion into deep knowing McClure calls “Mysteriosos.” And like a piano or tenor sax solo from early versions of the bebop standard of similar title composed by Thelonious Monk, this poem is a spontaneous trip into the moment. It is to poetry what Monk is to music. It is an occasion of experience that not only intensifies the fields created by previous installments of the poem, and deepens them, but also provides new angles, wit, invention–and it swings,
all but imagination,
and the reflections, and counter-reflections, of energy.
Sow bugs sleeping in cold owl burrows
The reflections and counter-reflections mentioned here evoke images of “The Jewel in Indra’s Net”, the essential image of Hua Yen Buddhism, in which we are all reflections of the godhead in each other, interconnected and interdependent. This is another joy of McClure’s work: his cosmology IS his poetics. There is no separation. His serial poem is connected to each previous part and informs future installations, just as the fields of energy we exude as thoughts return to us as experiences. In his 1975 poem “Rare Angel,” McClure said, “We swirl out what we are and watch what returns.” His non-linear, free-associative leap into the previously unknown is a process of discovery that takes us along with him, opens new realms for him AND us. One can talk about concepts like interconnectedness, but McClure’s work affords the experience of it. The writing here is an event, not the record of one. This is the huge difference between McClure’s writing and much of what passes for the new in North American poetry.
Feel the real muscular animal power.
The sense of haunches and wrists is reason.
Reason is non sense draped
in velvet of senses
and blood streaming veins.
Blind till caution is shattered
like a wind shield.
When asked about the “Dear Being” segment of this serial poem, McClure told me, “Friederich Schlegel said all ‘all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one.’ This (serial poem) is the first childish attempt at my advanced age, my most serious, childish attempt to make poetry, biology and philosophy, one…” And when asked if Olson’s cosmology was his poetics, his effort to integrate poetics and cosmology, McClure replied, “Yes. So this is a similar integration, though I think of cosmology in another way, but yes. I believe now I am just entering the field of energy…”